In 1613, Thomas Middleton prefaced the published record of his Lord Mayor’s Show, The Triumphs of Truth, with an attack upon a rival city poet, Anthony Munday. Middleton declared his pageant to have been “directed, written and redeem’d into forme, from the ignorance of some former times, and their common writer.” 1 Not satisfied with distinguishing his own efforts from those of this yet unnamed “common writer,” Middleton insisted that the art and knowledge displayed in these annual pageants should be worthy of the magnificence with which the Lord Mayor is received into office. He resumed his attack by noting
the miserable want of both which in the impudent common writer hath often forced from me much pity and sorrow: and it would heartily grieve any understanding spirit to behold, many times, so glorious a fire in bounty and goodnesse offering to match itselfe with freezing art, sitting in darkeness with the candle out, looking like the picture of Blacke Monday.(TM, 5:219)
Middleton’s allusion to his rival contains an implicit warning to his patrons, the twelve dominant trade guilds that elected the Lord Mayor and financed the pageants in his honor. The uninspired pageants of this “common writer,” Middleton suggests, reflect poorly upon the majesty of the new Lord Mayor (“so glorious a fire... offering to match itself with freezing art”); the guilds risked compromising this spectacular celebration of their civic authority by employing a poet who was the object of universal derision among his literary contemporaries. 2
In disparaging Munday’s formulaic “Triumphs,” Middleton was advocating the stylistic reform of civic pageantry. Middleton’s 1613 show adopted formal innovations imposed upon the mayoralty pageants by Thomas Dekker in 1612. Both shows dramatized the moral themes that were the traditional subject of the mayoralty pageants; unlike the static tableaux of earlier pageants, the 1612 and 1613 shows brought the dramatic structure and thematic unity of the private theaters into the London streets. In the terms of Middleton’s critique, these shows brought to the pageants a standard of theatrical “art and knowledge” appropriate to the glorification of mayoralty and guild. [End Page 879]
While modern critics have praised the stylistic innovations of the 1612 and 1613 shows, the guilds did not share Middleton’s distaste for the “freezing art” of Munday’s pageants. Munday’s fellow Drapers chose him to conceive the pageants the following two years, and their choice was ratified by the Fishmongers in 1616. Indeed, when Dekker and Middleton were chosen to create the shows in subsequent years, both poets abandoned the morality structures of their first shows in favor of the emblematic tableaux perfected by Munday, reducing the shows of 1612 and 1613 to aberrations in the stylistic history of the mayoralty shows. 3
Like all civic pageantry, the Jacobean Lord Mayor’s Show was an artistic medium shaped by an explicitly political context. The guilds’ rejection of the reforms urged in Middleton’s aesthetic manifesto reflects an unease with the introduction of theatrical mimesis into their annual affirmations of civic power. The dramatic form proposed by Dekker and Middleton makes the Lord Mayor an actor, implicating the magistrate in the “duplicitous” structure of theatrical artifice. Rather than enhancing the guilds’ authority by their stylistic innovations, the 1612 and 1613 pageants offered an implicit critique of the commercial ideology they purported to celebrate, drawing the spectator’s eye to the potential for abuse of office in this metaphoric transformation of merchant into civic magistrate.
The structure of the Lord Mayor’s Show evolved from its origins in the Midsummer Show, the pageantry accompanying the setting of the watch on the night of Saint John and Saint Peter. The mayoral “ridings,” dating to 1236, became the occasion for pageantry after 1535, when the Mercers’ Company adapted the tableaux from the Midsummer Show to honor their newly elected Mayor. The Lord Mayor’s Show, in its mature form, began early on the morning of October 29th, when the new Lord Mayor, the Aldermen of the city, and the liveried members of the mayor’s company boarded...